34 Miles of Mud-ness
I had really high hopes for this year's Pilgrim Challenge by XNRG - 66 hilly miles covered in deep, chalky, gooey mud with over 3300 ft in elevation. I had completed this challenge last year with overall time of 22 hours and 13 minutes. It was a really huge deal then as it commemorated second anniversary of my life proverbial death and resurrection. I found myself falling in love with running and, more so, spending hours on end off a beaten path.
Extreme Energy operate performance time based division of participants. If you complete the course in under 6hr 10min you will start with elite runners. Anything up to 8hrs makes you a runner. Over that mark you will class as a walker. I had put it in my head that this year I wanted to be a runner and made an 8hr course time my goal. Obviously, life being life it wasn't going to go smoothly or according to plan.
In early April 2019, I found myself in a lot of pain. My hands had become sore to the point of not being able to cut my fingernails or do a bra up. Debilitating fatigue joined in and I became barely able to function. After a period of seeing various doctors and going through diagnostic processes it was concluded that I have Rheumatoid Arthritis. One of most common methods of treating this autoimmune condition is a very low dose of weekly chemo. It took me about 5 months of being practically bed bound, mostly due to severe fatigue, before I was able to start training again. I can now tell you that thanks to our incredible NHS I am in full remission!!
Having experienced a chronic condition I realised that I wasn't able to flash point into being an ultra runner without a risk of injury or jeopardising my health further. I realised that I needed to have a plan and learn how to listen to my body with knowledge and wisdom. I was lucky to get through last year's challenge unscathed, wasn’t going to take my chances again knowing that I have three kids to look after and three other super exciting hobbies to keep life vibrant and interesting. Being injured or unwell doesn't sit well with either one of those.
Step one for me was hiring a running coach who understood what it means to be a parent and have a job plus someone who is a trail badass. It really made a lot of difference to how committed I was to my training, having almost immediate trouble shooting and encouragement when I was doubting myself or struggling. I am convinced that having a coach made, at the very least, 50% difference to my training. Second most important element of my prep was having a running lab session where my gait was video analysed. I found out what my strengths and weaknesses where and what I needed to focus on to prevent injury and improve on running efficiency.
Last key element for me is nutrition. If you're putting your body through brand new fitness regime feeding it right is very important. No, I do not have it down. I am very much work in progress and have a lot to learn in terms of what it actually means to eat healthy and fuel. But, just as much as my running, the trajectory is going in the right direction.
According to Cambridge dictionary a community is "the people living in one particular area or people who are consideredas a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality". I cannot highlight the value of community enough. We all crave to belong in one way or another and we define ourselves by contrast and through similarities to others.
There are certain things that must be done alone however experiences shared have infinite value. Trail running communities is one of those peculiar groups where you can spend hours on end running the same route without a need to talk to anyone. It is very much about you, your body and, most of all, your mind. Some people will exchange few sentences with you, some will stride on with unwavering focus. Any of them will encourage you and push you through when you hit a wall or a rough patch.
Ultra running is really hard, we as a group get it and we've got each other's back regardless of pace or athletic status. Trail makes us all equals in awe and reverence of its perilous testing of our admiration of it married with determination to conquer it, nonetheless. I love my trail running community where your most steep competition is the one with yourself and you have a friend, a coach and a cheerleader in all who cross your undulating path.
We were very fortunate with the weather this year. It had been incredibly sunny and mild highs of 13C - very unusual for this event. Last year the start line (and the course) was inches deep in snow. The spectacular weather made for a stunning day on the trails.
The price, however, was an equally impressive levels of mud making sizeable sections unrunable. The expected tricky spots where dryer than normal leaving glorious chalky gooey miles in all the unusual places. It all plays part in creating a unique and unforgettable event.
My personal recollection of the day looks more or less like this:
- This is epic, we’re doing this!
- Do not sit down in the mud, checkpoint is in 2 miles!
- Remind me not to ever sign up for an ultra again.
- This is so epic! And so much fun! Everything hurts and I’m happy!
- I want my mummy! I will cry a little bit.. or a lot!
- Jeez I finished! Let’s get a cuppa after I free myself from those muddy shoes!
- I’m going to do a 97miler next year!!!
I did not accomplish my 8 hour target per day. First day ended in 9 hours 13 minutes, one hour faster than the previous year. I decided not to start on day two. The last mile and a half I cried. I was at the end of myself. My ankle (injured few months back) was hurting and all I wanted to do it to get to the finish line.
At about halfway point I needed to convince myself not to sit in the mud and made a plan to have a longer break at the checkpoint. After refuelling I had a truly wonderful time jogging, marching and ascending challenging hills. I was achy but very, very happy. The sun, the trail and culmination of the last few months of training. I loved that endorphin and adrenaline induced high and my heart was soaring.
I knew that the next day wouldn't bring me this much joy. I had sacrificed climbing in the last few weeks in hope not to aggravate my ankle further and I miss it. The risk of re-injuring it wasn't worth it. I also had been fighting a winter bug and pushing my body to complete another 33 miles would have delayed it further. I simply have too much to look forward to wager it all on fully completing the challenge.
The biggest joy of running is the benefit it brings to mental health. In the last three years I found myself going through a lifetime of pain and grief. I found running to affect me in a hugely positive way.
It has taught me that getting stronger takes real work, time and determination. That working through things can be painful and it requires recovery time. That at times it may feel as though the progress is slow if any at all. That we may need professional help and a lot of support around us. That long term goals are worth fighting for and that the ripple effect of committing to work on yourself exceeds the conceivable.
People are watching, our children, family and friends, neighbours, strangers on social media. Pain is not unique to my own suffering and we do not have an exclusivity on daily struggle. We set an example to those around us, whether we want to or not, on how we work through hurt and what it looks like to be a human. At my very lowest I could not imagine a positive outcome for myself.
Now I can tell those I meet at their lowest that it is so so hard, but I am by their side and they can push through and push higher than they ever allowed themselves to dream. The journey of 34 miles starts with the first step. Where is your path taking you?